Friday, 8 April 2011

Development of policing to 1800

The medieval system of policing was based on community action where individuals were expected to aid neighbours and protect their villages from crime.[1] This pledge system was based around tithings, groups of ten families entrusted with policing minor problems such as disturbances, fire, wild animals and other threats. [2] The leader was called a tithingman and he was expected to raise the hue and cry to assemble his followers when the community was threatened and pursue suspected offenders. Ten tithings were grouped into a hundred and the hundredman, who later became the parish constable, dealt with more serious breaches of the law. At county level, the shire reeve, a royal official whose role evolved into that of sheriff, was responsible for public order in his area and soon began to pursue and apprehend criminals as part of his duties.[3] In the thirteenth century, a watch system was developed to protect property in larger towns and cities. Watchmen patrolled at night and helped protect against robberies, disturbances and fire reporting to the area constable.

In 1326, justices of the peace were first appointed to assist the sheriff in controlling the county. Their judicial role developed later in addition to their primary role as peacekeepers.[4] Constables were appointed by Quarter Sessions and became the operational assistant to the justices.[5] Appointed for between three and ten years, the constable faced a heavy fine if he refused to serve. The person appointed constable could pay someone to do the job for him and this became widespread in the sixteenth century and meant that, in some places, almost permanent ‘professionals’ were at work. The constable had to report to JPs on the state of roads and on public houses. He relied on his petty constables, operating in town and village, for his information. The constables had to use their own initiative and make regular presentments (reports) to the court. They had no uniform or weapon. In towns, but also in some villages, watchmen patrolled the streets at night. In London there were also two provost-marshals whose job including arresting vagrants and maintaining order on the highways round the capital.[6]

Maintaining law and order depends on some form of policing. Despite the institutional changes and innovations in procedure which made government in the localities more uniform, more professional and more accountable, by the early-eighteenth century, this system of policing was increasingly unable to cope with the growing population and the rising tide of crime. The only national police force that existed was the revenue or customs officer force that specialised in catching smugglers. The old constable system was cheap to run and the government continued with it. However, it could not cope with the growing size of the new industrial towns like Birmingham, Manchester and Sheffield. What existed was a medieval system of policing in a modern world. Watchmen were poorly paid. Patrick Colquhoun, a critic of the system, argued ‘the old and infirm were thus employed to keep them out of the workhouse’.

Crime 25

Charlie Rouse, London’s last watchman

The City of London employed 1,000 night watchmen so it was an important source of employment. [7] Some watchmen were in league with criminals. They were rarely efficient in dealing with criminals and usually gave up the chase when a criminal went into a neighbouring parish. Some large towns employed thief-takers like Jonathan Wild. They pocketed reward money after the successful prosecution of criminals. Large-scale disturbances or riots were deal with either by the professional army or by the local militia or yeomanry.[8] They were used across England to keep order in the 1790s and 1810s. Local militias were used for local problems but they were often inexperienced and drawn largely from the middle-classes. The Peterloo Massacre of August 1819 shows just how inexperienced they could be.[9]


[1] See Jewell, Helen M., English Local Administration in the Middle Ages, (David and Charles), 1972 for context.

[2] Morris, W.A., The Frankpledge System, (Longman, Green an Co.), 1910, pp. 27-53.

[3] Morris, W.A., The Medieval English Sheriff to 1300, (Manchester University Press), 1927 and Gorski, Richard, The Fourteenth-century Sheriff: English local administration in the late Middle Ages, (Boydell), 2003.

[4] Burn, Richard, The Justice of the Peace and Parish Officer, 3rd ed., (Printed by Henry Lintot for A. Miller), 1756 provides detailed coverage of roles and operation. See also, Osborne, B., Justices of the Peace 1381-1848: A History of the Justices of the Peace for the Counties of England, (Sedgill Press), 1960, Milton, Frank, The English Magistracy, (Oxford University Press), 1967, McConville, S., ‘Frustrated Executives: A Lost Opportunity for the English Magistracy’, Victorian Studies, Vol. 33, (4), (1990), pp. 581-602 and Philips, David, ‘A ‘Weak’ State?: The English State, the Magistracy and the Reform of Policing in the 1830s’, English Historical Review, Vol. 119, (2004), pp. 873-891.

[5] Simpson, H.B., ‘The Office of Constable’, English Historical Review, Vol. 10, (1895), pp. 625-641 is, despite its age, still worth reading. See also, Kent, Joan, ‘The English Village Constable, 1580-1642: The Nature and Dilemmas of the Office’, Journal of British Studies, Vol. 20, (2), (1981), pp. 26-49, Storch, Robert D., ‘The Old English Constabulary’, History Today, Vol. 49, (11), (1999), pp. 43-49.

[6] Boynton, Lindsay, ‘The Tudor Provost-Marshal’, English Historical Review, Vol. 77, (1962), pp. 437-455.

[7] Reynolds, E.A., Before the Bobbies: The Night Watch and Police Reform in Metropolitan London, 1720-1830, (Stanford University Press), 1998.

[8] Dodsworth, FM., ‘The Idea of Police in Eighteenth-Century England: Discipline, Reformation, Superintendence, c. 1780-1800’, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 69, (2008), pp. 583-604 and ‘“Civic” police and the condition of liberty: the rationality of governance in eighteenth-century England’, Social History, Vol. 29, (2004), pp. 199-216.

[9] Paley, Ruth, ‘“An imperfect, inadequate and wretched system”?: policing London before Peel’, Criminal Justice History, Vol. 10, (1989), pp. 95-130. See also, ibid, Dodsworth, F.M., ‘The Idea of Police in Eighteenth-Century England: Discipline, Reformation, Superintendence, c. 1780-1800’.

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